Bill Evans – Danny Boy, by Frederic Weatherly (Bill Evans Jazz version) with sheet music
“Danny Boy” is a ballad, written by English songwriter Frederic Weatherly in 1913, and set to the traditional Irish melody of “Londonderry Air”.
In 1910, in Bath, Somerset, the English lawyer and lyricist Frederic Weatherly initially wrote the words to “Danny Boy” to a tune other than “Londonderry Air”. After his Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret Enright Weatherly (known as Jess) in the United States sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” in 1913 (an alternative version of the story has her singing the air to him in 1912 with different lyrics), Weatherly modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air”.
Weatherly gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin, who made it one of the most popular songs in the new century. In 1915, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of “Danny Boy”.
Jane Ross of Limavady is credited with collecting the melody of “Londonderry Air” in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered.
The 1913 lyrics by Frederick E. Weatherly:
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, It’s you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,—
Oh, Danny boy, O Danny boy, I love you so!
But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Avè there for me.
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!
Various suggestions exist as to the true meaning of “Danny Boy”. Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising (as suggested by the reference to “pipes calling glen to glen”) or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
The 1918 version of the sheet music with Weatherly’s printed signature included alternative lyrics (“Eily Dear”), with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes “Eily Dear”, so that “Danny Boy” is only to be sung by a lady”. In spite of this, it is unclear whether this was Weatherly’s intent. The song has been performed by a diverse range of male singers, including Irish tenor John McCormack, Jim Reeves, Mario Lanza, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Shane MacGowan, Jackie Wilson, Daniel O’Donnell, Harry Belafonte, Tom Jones, John Gary, Frank Patterson, Thomas Quasthoff, Stuart Burrows, Jacob Collier, Harry Connick Jr., and comedian Peter Kay amongst many others. All used the original lyrics with slight variations.
The song is popular for funerals; but, as it is not liturgical, its suitability as a funeral song is sometimes contested. In 1928, Weatherly himself suggested that the second verse would provide a fitting requiem for the actress Ellen Terry.
But perhaps the greatest mystery about “Danny Boy” is its meaning. Who is Danny? Who’s singing to him, and why must he leave? Why will he and the narrator likely never see each other again?
This ambiguity, this very universal lament about separation and the finality of death, and the greater power of love, has spoken to people of many nationalities and faiths, and to artists and singers from nearly every genre of music.
From John McCormack to Bill Evans, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Joan Baez, Patti LaBelle and innumerable others, “Danny Boy” expresses what Weatherly knew: that unlike the deepest philosophy, history, or sermon, “song and story appeal to the heart. From the heart they come and to the heart they must go.”